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Yumanity Therapeutics, Merck strike deal aimed at developing new medicines for neurodegenerative disease

Yumanity Therapeutics, a small neuroscience-focused startup co-founded by longtime biotech executive Tony Coles, is pairing up with pharma giant Merck to develop new treatments for two neurodegenerative diseases, the companies announced Wednesday.

Under the agreement, Merck is licensing two Yumanity research programs with the goal of identifying novel treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and frontotemporal lobar dementia, a group of related conditions resulting from the degeneration of brain cells.

There are no identifiable drugs associated with these early science programs yet. Scientists from Merck and Yumanity will work together on drug discovery efforts, with the goal of eventually selecting promising compounds that can be brought into human testing.

“This is an exciting moment for Yumanity because it’s a nice validation of our drug discovery platform,” said Yumanity CEO Richard Peters.

Merck, like many drug makers, has struggled to develop effective neuroscience drugs. In 2017, it prematurely halted a large study of an experimental BACE inhibitor in Alzheimer’s patients after independent data monitors concluded that the drug was not working.

Today, Merck’s has retrenched to conducting mostly early-stage development of drugs to treat diseases like schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. A team of Merck scientists in the United Kingdom is also working on early scientific discovery research aimed at drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases, a spokesperson said.

Yumanity was launched in 2014 by Coles, the former CEO of Onyx Pharmaceuticals, and Susan Lindquist, a well-known researcher and National Medal of Science recipient, based on her research using yeast as a model organism to study neurodegenerative diseases caused by misfolded proteins. Lindquist died in 2016, after which Coles moved from CEO of the startup to chairman. In 2019, Coles became CEO of Cerevel Therapeutics, while retaining his role as Yumanity’s chairman.

While the new Merck partnership is still in the nascent scientific stage, Yumanity is pressing ahead with early clinical work on its first wholly owned drug to treat Parkinson’s disease. A healthy volunteer study was started in late 2019, with dosing in the first Parkinson’s patients expected this year and into 2021, said Peters, who succeeded Coles as Yumanity’s CEO.

A second drug candidate targeting Lewy body dementia is being readied for first-in-human clinical trial in 2021, Peters said.

As part of the new research collaboration, Yumanity receives from Merck an undisclosed upfront cash payment and is eligible for an additional $500 million tied to the successful development of the drugs, plus royalties on sales, if the products are approved. Merck also invested an undisclosed sum in a Series C round of financing.